Power and Property in the Community Forests of Bhutan

dc.contributorFarnham, Timothy
dc.contributorFitz-Gibbon, Desmond
dc.contributor.advisorCorson, Catherine
dc.contributor.authorWorcester, Julia
dc.description.abstractPower and property are mutually constituted and continually (re)negotiated and inextricable throughout the world, including in the eastern Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Forest governance and access to natural resources are two arenas in which these power relations play out. Through community forestry, the Royal Government of Bhutan has decentralized, but not devolved, power over the resources that people depend on for livelihoods, subsistence, and survival. The government does this by prioritizing certain forms of land use (primarily biodiversity conservation), controlling infrastructure development, and maintaining ownership rights over forests. I argue that the government should devolve power through ownership rights and increased decision-making control for local communities because this could address several social, economic, and ecological problems that the country is facing, including rural - urban migration and youth unemployment. During the fall of 2015, I studied abroad with the School for Field Studies (SFS) program ‘Himalayan Environment and Society in Transition.’ I interviewed people in three villages in the district of Bumthang about rights and access to the natural resources in community forests. I compared my results to the language that the government uses about land and community forestry in official documents, finding a lack of devolution of power over resources. Throughout the past 60 years, forest governance and property laws have changed several times. In 1969, the National Assembly passed the Forest Act, nationalizing all forests that were not in private hands. In 1996, the National Assembly passed the Forest and Nature Conservation Act, creating a system of community forestry in which the government decentralized decision-making to local officials but did not devolve the power to make decisions about those resources to the resource users. Devolution of power over resources, within a capitalist mode of production, provides people with the means of achieving not only subsistence and survival, but long-term security as well. When land is expropriated, people lose control over their means of survival; this expropriation is necessary in a capitalist system to create wage laborers. Having access to land and resources is one way to disentangle oneself from the exploitation of labor. At the same time that Bhutan’s economy is developing capitalist characteristics, the government maintains a rhetorical commitment to Gross National Happiness and a recognition of traditional culturally and ecologically sustainable ways of living that are assumed to have existed in Bhutan throughout its history. If the Bhutanese government is to honor its commitments to preserve the country’s biodiversity and cultural history, it must continue its path to devolution of power over land and natural resources, which form the bedrock of Bhutanese livelihoods, subsistence, and survival. Government officials have made substantial progress in terms of decentralization, but to address the rapid modernization and capitalist changes that are occurring in the economy, political system, and culture, they must remain aware of what is best for Bhutan’s citizens, regardless of pressures from abroad.en_US
dc.description.sponsorshipEnvironmental Studiesen_US
dc.subjectenvironmental studiesen_US
dc.subjectcommunity forestryen_US
dc.subjectAsian studiesen_US
dc.titlePower and Property in the Community Forests of Bhutanen_US
mhc.institutionMount Holyoke College


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